CYBERSHOCK: The Death of the Web

The headline in the May 17 issue of the on-line magazine Web Review read "404 Not Found." Over the years I've known several journalists who have left their publications, or even the profession, with farewell columns headlined simply "-30-," the notation that alerts typesetters to the end of an article. 404 Not Found is the cyber-age equivalent of -30-; it's the error message Netscape Navigator flashes when it can't find a requested page.Publisher Dale Dougherty's letter to readers was indeed a good-bye -- of sorts. "This is Web Review's final issue," it began, but there was a catch: the magazine would return in June if 5,000 readers pledged to subscribe at $19.95 for six months. The tone of Dougherty's letter suggested he didn't have much faith that readers would take him up on his offer -- and neither do I. I'm sad to see Web Review go, not only because I will miss its generally quite interesting content, but also because it was one of the first major efforts, along with the likes of HotWired and Salon, in which professional journalists and designers generated original magazine-style material directly for the Web. Most Web magazines and newspapers rehash, repackage, or simply republish content created for print.I wrote a column about Web Review shortly after its launch last year in which I interviewed Dougherty. He had his doubts even then about the viability of the magazine's advertising-based business model. In the column I questioned whether, given the medium's bandwidth limitations and nascent technology, advertising on the Web could be as effective as it is for other media, either as a marketing, manipulation, and entertainment device or as a revenue stream for media organizations.So I'm not surprised by Web Review's apparent demise. I'd like to trumpet my prescience, but I'd have to share the band shell with too many other observers, including HotWired managing editor Chip Bayers. On March 18 I received an emailed press release about an article by Bayers in the April Wired detailing the massive collapse of the Web publishing industry. I failed to notice the dateline on the press release: San Francisco, 27 January 1997.When I read the entire article in print several weeks later, I again missed the 1997 date and thought that packaging the story to make it look like a Time magazine piece was just a clever design ploy. It took a friend, a producer at HotWired, to clue me in that the whole piece was a ruse, a jab at the media hype surrounding the Web and how that hype might easily turn into antihype, a hyperbolic pronouncement of the Web's total demise.Bayers built his satire around future fictions that are grounded in some present-day truths. Advertisers pulled out and advertising rates plummeted in late 1996, he said, because chronic traffic jams were clogging the Web. Most sites' visitors were from search services trying to update their indexes, and real viewers who dallied on a page did so not because they were looking at the ads but because they were waiting for the page to load. Bayer didn't have to stretch his imagination far at all to come up with such scenarios.Bayers faked a quote -- "It's nothing less than the death of the Web" -- and attributed it to Mark Stahlman, cofounder of the New York New Media Association. In his April 8 "InformationWeek" column Stahlman responded, "The irony is that I am quite certain the Web will die this year -- just as in the parody. The reason is -- advertisers will dump the Web, and businesses that depend on ad support will become uneconomic. But the cause won't be the poor performance caused by 'clogged pipes' that's cited in the sendup; it's more fundamental. The Web is a terrible place to manipulate people's unconscious fears, which is the aim of consumer advertising."On April 25 Investor's Business Daily weighed in with an article by Steve Higgins describing how many Web content providers -- including Time Warner and its Pathfinder service -- have given up on advertising as their sole revenue source and are trying to shift to subscription-based financing. "The ad model didn't support the cost of creating content," Paul Sagan, senior vice president of new media for Time, told IBD. But, Higgins noted, many people doubt that subscriptions will work either, unless you're selling sex, sports, or financial information. The Web is too full of interesting -- if less polished -- freebies.That leaves us with one workable model for on-line magazines with original content: find some deep-pocketed underwriters (HotWired has Wired, Salon has Apple and Adobe, Slate will have Microsoft, and Web Review, while it lasted, had Global Network Navigator) and pray they don't miss their money too much. It's not a secure business strategy, and the resulting instability ensures that original journalistic content for the Web will continue to be a rare commodity.All of which begs the eternal question: Why should we care? I'll try to answer that question in my next column.

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